Data centers, the backbone of our digital infrastructure, have a significant environmental impact that cannot be ignored. From the production of energy-intensive hardware to the emission of greenhouse gases, the data center industry faces mounting challenges in its quest for sustainability. In our interview, Sascha Giese, Head Geek of SolarWinds, provides valuable insights into the environmental implications of data centers and offers potential solutions for a greener future. Giese discusses the role of observability solutions in reducing energy consumption and optimizing infrastructure, the obstacles faced by data centers in their sustainability efforts, and the critical intersection of digital technology and environmental responsibility.

Can you tell us more about the specific environmental impact of data centers, and how it compares to other industries or sources of emissions?

Data centers impact the environment heavily in many ways. To begin with, the production of hardware that is utilised in data centers requires a significant amount of energy and raw materials, alongside the substantial amount of waste that is generated from packaging. The hardware also contains toxic chemicals, making safe recycling challenging. With large amounts of hardware consolidated into a single location, data centers require a larger amount of electricity to power and cool their servers and infrastructure. This tremendous consumption of energy results in the emission of greenhouse gases (GHG), and trying to satisfy the energy requirements of data centers with renewable sources of energy has been a challenge, in which many in the industry are looking to solve. In comparison to other industries, the energy demand for data centers is rapidly increasing. Depending on what statistic we look at, we see that IT’s hunger for energy is somewhere between 5-9% of the global electricity demand and could likely reach 21% by 2030.
According to the International Energy Authority (IEA), the demand for additional data centers are forecasted to rise, too.

How do you see the demand for data centers evolving in the future, and how can organizations balance this growth with their environmental responsibilities?

Following the pandemic, the wave of digitalisation and increased usage of streaming and internet services has driven the demand for data, leading to an increased need for data centers. It is expected that the number of cloud native server users and enterprise spending on cloud services will continue to rise. As a result, data centers will need to adapt to meet additional requirements.

Organizations will need to find ways to meet their technological demands while striking a balance with sustainability. One approach is to leverage technologies, like observability to provide a visibility over underutilised IT infrastructure and eliminate unnecessary energy consumption. There is optimism regarding organizations ability to achieve this objective. According to Gartner, it is predicted that 75% of organizations will implement a data center infrastructure sustainability program by 2027. This is due to the need for cost optimisation, and pressures from stakeholders who are becoming more environmentally conscious.

SolarWinds is one company that is helping data centers become more sustainable. Can you explain how the Observability solution works and the specific ways it reduces energy consumption?

Observability solutions provide data-center administrators with single-pane-of-glass visibility regardless of the company’s infrastructure, permitting easy mapping of the performance of applications and systems. The performance analysis provided by observability enables organizations to identify and eliminate redundant or underused applications and systems of their system, which helps in reducing computing power and energy consumption.

Beyond reducing energy use, observability solutions can also help companies with scalability and planning security. By optimizing the load of on-premises data center hardware and modern features like ML-based forecasting, companies can increase the ROI on what’s currently in use and support a data-driven decision-making process when it comes to acquiring new gear.

Can you discuss any challenges or obstacles that data centers face when trying to reduce their environmental impact, and how these challenges can be overcome?

Overcoming the environmental impact caused by data centers is a complex issue. The very nature of data centers is energy consuming and will be a long-term challenge to eliminate. Despite the availability of less energy consuming hardware, to immediately replace current technologies powering data center is just a part of the puzzle.
Another focus should be on orchestration as well as green coding. In Green Coding we can observe three key performance indicators: Energy consumption, time, and space. The first KPI shows the overall energy cost until a process finishes its task. The second one is the execution time of the process or script, but the third one is a bit more flexible as it could be used to measure either the total disk space the program requires, or the memory the process utilizes while running, or while it’s waiting in memory for input.

All of them point into the direction: Code needs to be more efficient. But that’s easier said than done, considering the amount of legacy infrastructure and technological debt that’s still in place in various organizations.

What role do customers and end-users play in promoting sustainability in the data center industry, and how can organizations engage them in these efforts?

The choices and demands of customers and end-users have a significant impact on data centers’ environmental practices. According to the Capgemini Research Institute, the number of connected devices is expected to reach 55.7 billion by 2025 and generate 73.1. zettabytes of data. While end-users may have limited control over resource management, they can opt for service providers committed to sustainability. Organizations should provide comprehensive information about their energy usage and reduction strategies to help customers make informed choices.

How do you see the role of government and policy in promoting sustainability in the data center industry?

Governments and policymakers can introduce policies and regulations to create the necessary foundation for the data center industry to adopt more sustainable practices. We are starting to see the regulations and policies making headwinds in the USA and across Europe.

The similar trend is observed in the APAC region, especially in Singapore a regional hub for data centers. The Economic Development Board (EDB) and Infocomm Media Development Authority in Singapore have launched a pilot data center in 2022, with the aim of facilitating the sustainable growth of DCs in Singapore, in a manner that is aligned with the country’s climate change commitment. Such government supported initiatives are highly valuable in paving the way for industry players to follow suit in their sustainability agenda.

Some people argue that data centers are inherently unsustainable, and that we need to rethink our approach to digital infrastructure altogether. What is your response to this criticism, and how do you see the future of digital technology and sustainability intersecting?

Through existing technology and effective solutions such as observability, there is optimism that digital structures such as data centers can coexist with sustainability. Rather than viewing technology and sustainability as opposing forces, organizations should explore ways in which digital technology can help them achieve their sustainability goals. For example, utilising observability not only provides business value by consolidating their fragmented IT systems, but also enables organizations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by eliminating underutilized systems.

Addressing this issue may also involve repurposing data centers to offer additional green value to society. A study by Bitkom, Germany’s largest technology industry association, found that heat generated by data centers can be redirected to supply heat for approximately 350,000 German homes annually.

Data centers, and IT in general, become more sustainable each year. It’s more than just a trend, but we’re still at the beginning of exploring ways how to become more environmentally friendly.

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